Life Skills Oasis: A project for the streets, by the streets in Kenya
Newton Kiarie Njoroge
Life Skills Oasis (LSO) is a project delivered in Kiandutu slum, near Thika in Kenya. The organisation was started in 2006 by a group of young men who had previously lived and worked on the streets in and around the town. I am the Director, and I lived on the streets for three years in the 1990s. When I was younger, getting an education required that I pay school fees, which we could not afford, and so I went to the streets to earn money. I was lucky and found benefactors who helped me finish my education and complete my training as an Early Childhood Development Education (ECDE) teacher.
Many of the children found on the streets in Thika, like me, come from Kiandutu. It is one of the largest informal settlements in Kenya, with over 13,000 residents in over 5,000 households (according to the 2009 census). Although it is impossible to generalise, many of the residents rely on casual work, such as work in nearby quarries and plantations; hawking businesses that involve selling items on the street; sex work; and brewing Chang’aa (a traditional alcoholic drink). These forms of income generation are not dependable, and a number of families struggle to meet the costs of basic needs.
My friends and I decided to use our experience of growing up in Kiandutu and living on the streets to help others in similar situations. We began as a weekend project that delivered life skills education to children living in and around the settlement. The sessions covered topics such as sex and relationships education, drug misuse, health and hygiene, and the importance of going to school. Over time, the project has expanded to meet a growing need. We have a drop-in centre that opens seven days a week. From Monday to Friday, we deliver a programme of support for children who are not in school, both those who live on the streets and those who are at risk of going to the streets. At weekends and during the holidays, we organise additional activities for children who go to school. One of the activities that brings all our children together is football.
Using football to engage children
LSO uses football as a way of developing relationships with the children, who love to play or watch football. Each day at the centre begins with a football focus. The coaches, who have all lived and worked on the streets and come from Kiandutu, arrive at the field at 8am and start the day with warm up exercises, skills training and then a game. Sport is a useful tool to engage young people and promote inclusion. It provides a social space for interaction with others, brings children from different ethnic backgrounds together, and develops their physical and mental health. It also helps the children to develop relationships with the coaches and teachers at LSO.
LSO has a number of football teams that compete in local leagues. The children develop as team players and have the opportunity to represent themselves and their communities in a public forum. Last year the girls’ team, ‘The Queens’, did really well in the competitions. The children develop confidence and character through their involvement in the sport.
After the daily game, everyone gets to eat porridge and talk. This is an opportunity for the children to discuss their lives, and maybe bring up any issues they are facing. It is a useful forum that brings the children together and helps them get to know each other off the pitch. It also provides an opportunity to talk about life on the streets and the possibilities of leaving the streets. After porridge, the children are given non-formal education that teaches life skills, develops literacy and numeracy skills as well as art. These lessons help to develop a love for learning and encourage the children to think about going back to school. In the early afternoon lunch is provided, followed by a more relaxed afternoon programme that includes games, crafts and farming activities.
Working with families to keep children in school
When children are out of school there is often a problem at home that means they need to work or find food. Therefore, we work with families, particularly single mothers, on the development of agricultural projects that can provide both food and extra income. We have recently extended this idea to a plot of land near the LSO centre that we are farming with the children to help grow food for lunches and teach the children basic farming skills that they can use at home.
Family planning is also an important aspect of the work we do with families – helping our young people to make wiser, more informed life decisions. As well as the sex education sessions we provide, we have set up free ‘condom dispensers’ for people in the community. These are made from old jerry cans mounted on posts around the settlement. We regularly fill them up to make sure that safety is not something that is compromised because young people cannot afford protection.
LSO – a community venture
LSO is a truly community venture. We rely on others’ good will to keep going. A fair amount of our funding comes from public donations, both in Kenya and from overseas. LSO is run and delivered by volunteers. Many of the volunteers are young people who have lived on the streets themselves and want to help others in the same situation. Others are social workers and teachers who work for other organisations locally, as I used to when we first started. They give up their time in the evenings or at weekends to deliver sessions, fundraise for LSO, and provide training for the young people who volunteer as coaches and teachers during the week.
The community is also engaged in helping the organisation. As we are supporting children to stay away from the streets, and teaching skills and values that benefit them for life, community members help to support us through food donations from their family shamba (small holdings) or through financial contributions when they are able. We canvass local businesses for support, encouraging them to think of us as part of their social responsibility. We also network with other local organisations who do similar work and who extend their projects to include LSO or provide training – collaborating to ensure that as many children as possible stay in school.
Newton is the Director at Life Skills Oasis